A crack in the wall
|By Billy Cox|
Hate to keep working a plowed field, but today we need to revisit the seminal “Sovereignty and the UFO” essay in the journal of Political Theory. That's because of what's happening tomorrow in Washington, D.C.
The "Sovereignty" piece, penned by political scientists Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall in 2008, laid out a theory for why America’s higher-learning institutions were incapable of entertaining serious debates on The Great Taboo. The disconnect was more political than scientific, and the result, they argued, was intellectual poverty on a broad scale.
“If academics’ first responsibility is to tell the truth,” they declared, “then the truth is that after sixty years of modern UFOs, human beings still have no idea what they are, and are not even trying to find out. That should surprise and disturb us all, and cast doubt on the structure of rule that requires and sustains it.”
At American University, international relations professor Patrick Jackson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at the School of International Service, is not only familiar with the Wendt/Duvall piece, he sympathizes with major portions of it. “Science is the excitement of not knowing. I’d like to think we want our students to think more broadly than to simply reproduce in some form or fashion the same old idea they’ve heard all their lives,” says Jackson. “I mean, what is tenure if not to explore what Nietzche called untimely thoughts?”
Accordingly, on Wednesday, Jackson has volunteered to sub for PBS science reporter Miles O’Brien (scheduling conflict) and moderate AU’s three-hour panel discussion “UFOs: Encounters by Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials.” This is a free public event extending from an honors colloquium taught by cinema professor John Weiskopf. The lineup includes USAF veteran Charles Halt (the Bentwaters incident), retired NASA scientist Richard Haines (National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena founder), Roswell investigator Thomas Carey, and New York Times bestselling author Leslie Kean (UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record).
This is a big deal. Although increasing numbers of institutions are warming to the idea of sponsoring discussions about extraterrestrial intelligence, the SETI model — ETs are just like us, playing around with radio signals while conveniently stranded on some cosmic island far, far away — is about as far as they’ll typically extend their necks. Wednesday’s roundtable is different.
“How often does an honors class take a serious look at UFOs? John Weiskopf is to be commended for making this happen,” states Kean. “American University is breaking ground here which could help encourage other universities to do the same. Many people and departments at AU are rallying around this event and they all take the subject seriously. I hope this will pave the way for the academic community to become more objective and rational about this subject.”
To be sure, cautions Jackson, the classroom bridge into this exotic realm is built on the foundation of science fiction in popular culture. But it’s also a novel way of introducing students to AU’s School of International Service, one of the top-ranked foreign studies programs in the country.
“What are international relations about if not an encounter with ‘the other’ in some way? In this case, it would the alien,” says Jackson, who has yet to be convinced the evidence supports the ET premise. “If you look at Star Trek, whether it’s Klingons they’re dealing with or the Federation, it’s all international politics. What we want to do is stimulate intellectual creativity and promote robust discussion, not to shut it down by saying it’s prima facie absurd.”
Could a successful AU symposium signal to other universities that it’s OK to hold UFO forums without getting the cooties? “I could imagine a pathway,” Jackson says. “But let’s hold this forum and see what happens.”
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